Stanisław Łubieński, who could be referred to as a cultural anthropologist, Ukrainian studies specialist or author of Pirat Stepowy (Pirate of the Steppes) about Ukrainian anarchist and revolutionary Nestor Machno, did not write a book about birds. Or at least not only about them. If The Birds They Sang: Birds and People in Life and Art can be summarised in one sentence, it would go like this: it is a collection of different stories about birds, with their enthusiasts and fans also taking a starring role. A small but fascinating book.
The Birds They Sang is something of a patchwork. Łubieński is often a nature observer, poet, essayist and reporter, but at other times he is also a biographer or even a publicist. The protagonists of his stories are pine trees, hawks, ravens and godwits, but also ornithologists, amateur bird lovers, artists and activists. Finally, he makes himself the protagonist of some of the stories, sharing his experiences – which he has a lot of – from various expeditions, camps, volunteer work and other personal activities that revolve around birds.
Łubieński circles around the subject and makes digressions. Here he mentions Chełmoński and his almost religious attitude towards nature, there he looks at the figure of a well-known ornithologist, here he again highlights the habits of storks and in the meantime tells us about his own adventures as a ptasiarz – which is what birdwatchers are called in Polish (the author considers this name to be unfortunate but I quite like this domestic-sounding term).
Actually, this whole mosaic-like book is written from the perspective of a ptasiarz. It is not attached to ornithological orthodoxy, but it is also by no means ‘amateurish’, because Stanisław Łubieński has a great deal of knowledge: one the one hand theoretical, drawn from books, studies and atlases, about which he writes beautifully, and on the other strictly practical, acquired in forests, urban parks and various other more or less surprising places where he devoted himself to his passion.
Not all the tones of this diverse book matched my tastes. A couple of times I happened to drift away with my thoughts when reading the more poetic, ‘impressionistic’ fragments, because there are, naturally, quite a few descriptions of nature in this book. However, I was completely absorbed by the stories told by Łubieński-the-bird-expert and Łubieński-the-biographer. One of my favourite chapters or mini-essays that make up The Birds They Sang is the one dedicated to bird migration. You can learn, for example, about the 16th-century Bishop of Uppsala, who was convinced that swallows do not migrate, but submerge underwater for winter, or the fact that the coal tit smells of resin and that the marsh warbler has exceptionally soft feathers. Also, that birds are inclined to migrate because of ‘migratory anxiety’ and that godwits cross the Pacific Ocean in one uninterrupted rally.
I consider bird migration to be the greatest wonder of nature. The history of each migration can be presented as a heroic epic. Each participant is unique. How many obstacles, inconveniences, discomforts and dangers does a tit, weighing only a dozen or so grams, encounter as it travels for a mere few hundred kilometres?
The best, in my opinion, fragments of The Birds They Sang also include stories about various bird lunatics: ornithologists, researchers, birdwatchers. The story of the ornithologist James Bond (the coincidence of names is not accidental!), the author of the cult guidebook The Birds of the West Indies or Friedrich Tischler, who comes from East Prussia (today's Warmia-Masuria region), who is pursuing his bird observations despite the on-going World War II, are real mini-biographical pearls.
Łubieński is a bit like Filip Springer in being hot on the tails of other bird freaks and enthusiasts, travelling through Poland and being devoted – or even a bit obsessive – to the subject of birds. Just as Springer was looking for traces of the lost city in the provincial, forgotten Miedzianka, Łubieński is looking for signs – blurred, unexpressed – of Tischler's presence in Lusiny, where ‘after the dismantling of a state farm, only those who could not leave this forgotten place were left’. Łubieński not only reaches rarely frequented places, but also reveals surprising worlds to his readers, the existence of which they probably had no idea, and which turn out to live in a very dynamic and interesting way. We are talking here about bird-lover Internet forums or the whole bird subculture in general, and people affected by the (already jokingly diagnosed) BCD syndrome – Birding Compulsive Disorder.
He is also similar to Springer because of the political dimension of his writing. Łubieński writes about birds not only as an observer and lover, but also as a defender-activist. A large part of The Birds They Sang is devoted to thoughtless urban planning policies, tree felling and its disastrous effects on birds and other living organisms. He writes about people, including himself, devoting their free time to fighting in offices and construction companies, fighting for the ‘right to live for urban birds’, protecting nests on buildings from thermal insulation works. In a compelling manner, he writes about the phenomenon of synurbanisation, i.e. urban symbiosis, about the necessity to adapt to life amongst people for many species of wild animals. He is an excellent guide. He knows so much about birds that he can look at our world from their perspective.
Sometimes I wonder what Warsaw looks like from a bird’s eye view. Perhaps the city is a natural part of the landscape for them? Mountains of settlement estates, windblown crags of skyscrapers and gentle hills of tenement houses. Wild, moss-covered cliffs of abandoned buildings.
It is a good idea to read The Birds They Sang simultaneously with Adam Wajrak's Wilki (Wolves), which I accidentally did myself, to a) confirm myself in the belief that if Poland has any capital, it is its extraordinary world of nature, b) open my eyes wide and be surprised by all those amazing things which, as it turns out, we have at our fingertips.
Stanisław Łubieński was awarded the NIKE 2017 readers' award for The Birds They Sang: Birds and People in Life and Art.
It’s hard to find a more beautiful book for spring.